DGT, solo and at speed - not quite a trip report

11 Jun 2015 19:51 #64239 by AndrewP
This is not really a report back of my recent GT in the usual sense. I took no pictures and thanks to the satellite tracker, everyone knew where I was anyway. This is more a collection of thoughts that may explain some of the choices I made or the thinking or lack thereof behind them. I hope I have found a decent balance between boredom and providing some decent background. You can decide.

As is rather obvious, I ran. And then I ran a bit more. Oh, I walked a bit and then I felt okay to run again so I did just that. I ate a few munchies and ran some more.

I have always felt that a sub 40 hour GT is possible. In the days when Gavin and Lawrie Raubenheimer still held the record with a time of about 105 hours, sub 40 hours was always my target. More often than not, failure to meet this was a reason for my pulling out as I was simply not prepared (mentally, physically or gear-wise) for anything longer. In the end, I settled for a finish of 61.5 hours for the simple reason that any finish is better than none and that still smashed the record (by then 82 hours by Stijn Laenen and Andrew Hagen). I knew at the time that I could go a lot faster, but was pretty tired of the whole thing and decided to take a break from running. I literally threw away my shoes after the attempt, but knew I would be back. A chance encounter with Stijn over dinner in mid 2013 was all I needed to drag myself back into running shape.

As it turned out, I knew by mid 2014 that I would be very busy at work until the end of March 2015 and that I would then have an almost unlimited amount of time on my hands in April and May. By co-incidence I did a long night run in June 2014, so I knew it was possible to run through a (mild) winter night with light weight gear. This led to me choosing the early June full moon window. The days are short and the nights cold, but you get a stable weather with a cool day, short grass to run through (this really helps a lot!) and there is still enough water in the streams.

By October 2014, I had done most of the preparations I wanted for the GT. My route was mostly worked out. I had compared a few route choices that I had taken previously compared to those that Ryno/Ryan took in March 2014 to make sure I was taking the option that works best for me. But, I still needed time in the hills. To avoid the "yet another valley" syndrome, which has caught out almost every speed GT'r thus far, I decided to tackle ground new to me. I ran up every Khulu I could find, started doing passes I had never previously considered and generally started getting to know the berg as a whole instead of just a thin slice of it. This was actually a lot of fun, got me to places I might never over wise have gotten to and during the GT itself it really did help to say "wow, look at the sunset on Tent and Hawk" instead of just "wow, cool lighting on the pointy peak".

By now, everyone knows that as a solo runner, I am scared of Fluffy at night. At night, when his master is asleep, Fluffy turns into a 3 headed monster that can scare away a lion. Maybe not a lion, but certainly a trail runner who is completely buggered after 20+ hours of hard running. The main point to carry forward here is that as long as Fluffy is far away, I am happy to keep going. Two weeks before the trip, I went out into the hills and marked out which kraals were occupied at this time of the year. This allowed me to chose a sensible start time, to pace myself appropriately on day one and in general told me where to be careful or fast.

In the weeks immediately preceding the GT attempt, I took a hint from the Griesel/Sandes record last year and took a block period of leave off work to prepare for the GT. I took two weeks leave to spend in the hills before I even considered starting the GT (I had taken an additional two separate weeks in April and several other weekend trips, so I had a solid base). In the first of these weeks, I did just over 200km as a combination of fun, speed work and scouting out the terrain. In the week before the GT, I spent a week at Sani Top backpackers, with runs of about 10-15km a day. But, as I did those in an hour or two, it was literally "warm up" material.

This two week period also allowed me the chance to prepare in a few other ways such as completely switching off from a normally stressful work, and to do a few sneaky tricks that would make it easier to run at 3am when the time came. Hint, I saw a lot of really amazing sunrises that week.

A significant learning point I took from September 2014, is that a choice that works for one person does not work for all. I have a different running style to Ryno and Ryan. As a solo runner (with a climbers background), I have a different set of "safety issues". Then, I threw in the opposite direction and all that goes with it. (Yes, if I was to run it north to south I would use different start times and run a different route!)
In a nutshell - the GT is tough enough that it makes sense to plan specific route choices, start times, direction of travel and such like to SUIT YOURSELF. Others may be able to gain from my variations, but only by first comparing them to the alternatives and working out what works from them as part of an overall plan.

In the daytime when I am fresh, the Jarateng valley is about 1.5 hours faster for me than the escarpment route. Skipping dogs is one benefit of the detour. An unexpected benefit though was "lack of commitment". On a conventional speed GT, once you leave Mafadi the only escape routes between that and Mashai Pass are Giants Pass or Sani. On my 61.5 hr GT a few years back, that was about 36 hours! This way, I could potentially bail literally every hour between Giants and Mafadi. And because it was an option, I never felt the need to consider it. Why bail now if you can still go for another hour first?
Ultimately, this was the choice that made it possible for me to finish the GT!

Being the first person to try a speed GT from the southern end, I had no idea of what was possible, so I had the hard task of working it out for myself. Obviously by starting at the southern end, I would have four hours of hard work to get to the top of the Lequoa Ridge, and a mere 20km. From the north, I should cover those same 20km in three hours, so I would lose an hour from the word go. But, I hoped I would be able to finish faster on the ground in the north, which has good paths, lower ridges and the shape of the valleys should be easier for my running style. Oh, and this way I could start at a sensible time and not have any night time dog encounters at all. Finally, as I live in Gauteng, it is natural that I can visit the northern Drakensberg with a lot less effort than the southern berg. I have done almost all of the northern section about ten times, but the southern berg only three times. It really helped to know that every step I took was getting me into ground I knew better. These last two points meant that my chances of bailing were reduced to only in the event of injury.
That is the theory. In practise, I feel it lived up to my expectations. Mont-aux-Sources will always be harder work from the south especially if you are tired. Then again, I am glad I went up Isicatula Pass and in general it seemed a good idea.

I find that after a while, I need some variety to my food. Not only different flavours, but different textures, substances and tastes. For this reason, I varied my food intake to include PVM energy bars, GU's, crisps, salami sticks, granola bars and even a few other nibbles as well. I aim to eat one bar or equivalent every hour. I had only three bars left at the end, thanks mainly to "rationing" two bars earlier in the run, so I catered pretty well.

I took barely enough clothing to keep warm whilst moving and nothing at all to keep me warm at night if I stopped moving. I went into the run with a possible option to sleeping during the late afternoon of the first day by finding a spot in the warm sun. In the end I did not feel it necessary at the time, and as it turned out, my progress at night was always good enough to justify keeping moving. So, I just kept going. I feel that it worked for me, although I could feel the lack of sleep in the last few hours and definitely lost some time on the final night due to schoolboy type errors. Such as summiting the "wrong" Mont-aux-Sources and having to hike 500m up the ridge to get the true summit.
It really helped that I have done some scary rock climbs in my time, because descending the chain ladder at night with 45 hours since your last shut-eye is not for the feint-hearted.

It is tough to go solo. It is much easier to bail when the going gets tough. If anything goes wrong, you are going to crawl so far that Joe Simpson will ask for your autograph. The Berg is big and lonely, especially at night. You have to carry everything yourself - gear such as GPS, tracker, spare anything, first aid kit all end up in your pack. No chance of spooning if you chose to sleep. If you trip at night and hit your head on a rock, you might never get a chance to press the magic red button on the satellite tracker.
That said, consider the alternative. Try finding two people who get on well enough to spend all that time together. You both need to take literally months out of your personal lives to prepare, need leave from work at the same time to acclimatise and then on the big day itself you both need to be in top shape at the same time.
I personally feel that the solo record will be beaten several times over before the team record is beaten.

Training stats (only considering my training in the Drakensberg itself)
For the 5 months in 2015, prior to the GT, I spent 41 days in the berg, during which I did 980km and 41000m altitude gain. This included 16 passes and 49 khulus. Well over 50% of this was for ground I had never previously seen, which kept the spirits high

Basic stats
Distance covered: 204km
Time: 45 hours 7 minutes 25 seconds
Altitude gained: My GPS says 13000m, which is clearly over the top. A "normal" speed GT is considered to be 7800m or so. I can add about 800m for the non-Jarateng variation, and also about 700m for the S-N vs N-S choice. This means I did about 9300m altitude gain, and about 8500m altitude loss.
Sleep: None.
Swims: Sadly, none. Does this count as a successful GT?
I did not take a heartrate monitor because I know it will get uncomfortable after a while, and the only way to stop my watch from beeping every 30 seconds if I have the strap in my pack but not on me is to turn the stopwatch off (and hence lose my primary timing mechanism)
The tracking website had over 2100 views
Amongst numerous messages of congratulations, the "Quote of the day" is from an anonymous guy who said he was going to stop eating his bag of chips and walk around his chair. Go Loius

As for the run itself:
- I saw a porcupine about 10 minutes into the run!
- The sunrise from the Walkers Ridge was amazing. There was a lot of dust/pollution below, and that in turn gave a deep red glow to the horizon long before the sun came up. I missed the second sunrise by being on the wrong side of the Yoddlers ridge.
- I spent a few minutes on the summit of Cleft Peak looking at the view, but otherwise have no special memories to take home with me

My bag weight can be broken down roughly as follows:
Food: 1750g (45 "bars", mostly sets of 6 of 1xGU, 1xGU Chomp, 1x crisps (niknaks or fritoes), 1x PVM, 1x Granola Bar(really good option), 60g Woolies Salami Sticks (also good option)) + 1x rehydrate every 6 hours of daytime; could have used a few woolies seed bars and or fruit rolls
Bag itself: 410g
SunScreen and first aid kit (lip ice and roll of tape): 86g
Clothing (beanie, gloves, raincoat and all extra layers): 650g
Water (incl bottle): 580g max
Electrical goodies (tracker, gps(+ 1 spare batteries(lithium gives 35hrs)), headlamp(+1 spare battery), watch): 800g
Total: 4.3kg
Excluded from this weight is the gear I wore all the time: shoes, socks, short running pants and a single upper layer

The wind between Isicatula Pass and Walkers Ridge was almost gale force. I started out wearing a single layer as I knew I would start at a low altitude and with plenty of reserve body heat. Hitting this wind in the cold before the sun emerged was most unpleasant.
I had about 15 minutes of mist right at the end - I actually saw it move over the Witches ridge onto the zig-zags as I approached. It was windy as well, but strangely I did not notice that. It must have had something to do with being so close to home that it did not matter anymore.
For the remaining 44+ hours, the weather was absolutely perfect. The sun was warm but I never felt hot, even in the low altitude valleys. The nights were mild and mostly windless so as long as I kept moving I was warm enough. In fact I stopped for about five minutes about midnight while passing over the Popple Ridge for a rest for the simple fact that as it was warm enough that I could.

It just so happened that Jonathan was planning a hike in the southern berg about the same time as I was planning to start. His hike fell through and I shifted my start a day earlier and I thus had a simple way to get my car and goodies back to Pietermaritzberg after I had started.
I left a suitcase of goodies at the Sentinel car park beforehand. I planned to wait a day or 2 until the Ampitheatre backpackers crowd did a trip to the Tugela Falls, and to then wait another day or 2 to catch the Baz Bus from the backpackers to Pietermaritzberg.

A special thanks to:
Jonathan and Byron for helping to move my car from Bushmans Neck to Pietermaritzberg. Thanks also to Jonathan for the encouragement he offered at the start and for getting up at 2:30am to take picturess of me setting out;
Sarah and her Dad for driving out to meet me at the finish. I expected a "solo" finish, and had no idea that they were waiting for me. Literally 100m from the end, they switched on their headlamps to break the solitude. It made for a really special finish;
In the 2 weeks before the run itself, I stayed at the following venues. They did not really know it at the time, but thanks all the same to Agrippa at the Mnweni Visitor Center, the staff at Giants Castle reserve, SilverStreams Campsite, and the crew at Sani Mountain Lodge who provided a weeks worth of comfort, electricity (to power laptops, charge headlamps etc) and a suitable base to accilimitise;
The guys who looked after my suitcase at sentinel carpark and allowed themselves to be woken at midnight so I could retrieve it;
Everyone who watched the blue dot move late into the night and posted updates all over the place.

Next Time?
Definitely. I am not going to let all this work go so easily.
- During the attempt itself, I found about a dozen (minor) route choice changes that I can make. Most of these relate to the fact that the optimal route going south-north is NOT the same as the optimal route going north-south;
- Way back, Stijn made an interesting variation that has subsequently been ignored by all speed attempts thus far, including mine. While out there, I took a few minutes to scope it out from a distance, and I can see the merit in Stijn's choice. - Combining that with another variation I have already worked out, this can go places
- On 2 of the ridges, I took route choices that although no worse than anyone else are clearly not (to me at least) winner. One of them has an obvious solution, the other needs some fieldwork
- The preparation had good points and bad...
- Although my GT worked out almost perfectly in the end, a lot of it was based on hopeful thinking and a lot of guesswork. I now have a much better idea of what is possible

Tips for someone contemplating a speed GT:
- Watch the weather and only go if you are certain the weather will be perfect (no moisture, no strong winds, cloudless, cool days and nights not too cold). This is why recent attempts have gone in March-May
- Plan where you want to be at night. Work backwards to your start time.
- Route choices that work for one person do not work for all. Try the options out and see what works for you
- Full moon helps a huge amount. But, you cannot see a moon if there is cloud/mist, so rule one overrides this
- Train in the Drakensberg and get to know the route as well as possible
- Keep your bag weight down. Thrown everything out especially the stuff your mom asked you to pack
- Acclimitisation helps a huge amount
- After a while, the ridges wear you down. Train for hills, and then train some more. You are going to haulling your ass over many 300m+ ridges when completely broken. A single hill (up or down) can take hours out of your time if you fall apart
- try out your gear, and know how your GPS works, that your clothing will keep you cool in the day and warm at night (without too many layer changes that take up time), and get a headlamp that you trust for 24 hours of nighttime lighting at running speed
- as your start date is unknown until right at the end, it is very hard to find a second who can suddenly drop things to help you out. Plan for this/around this from the word go

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